China, which has become a major actor in liberal globalisation, is at a real turning point in its development. The restructuring of its economy has profoundly transformed the nature of labour relations of the Maoist period. Since the 1980s and 1990s social conflicts have been growing. The 2010 strikes, notably at Honda and Foxconn, are part of a new context with a stronger working class mobilisation, both more conscious and more collective. Is this the sign of a new era in the Chinese labour movement? This was one of the major themes of a conference – “Workers’ struggle in the East and the West: New points of view on the labour conflicts in globalised China” – held in Vienna (September 22, 23 and 24) initiated by Transform!
Participants in the conference from very different horizons – Chinese research workers form the Universities of Peking and Hong Kong and Chinese Research Centres, European China experts, American and Australian trade unionists and NGO activists – exchanged their experiences. This gave rise to rich discussions, including often very different approaches. However, there was one unanimous observation – the conflicts have highlighted the inability of the official trade unions (ACFTU) to play their role in defending the interests of the world of labour.
Other forms of organisation are appearing. The lines have shifted. Since the law on employment contracts came into force in January 2008, although they are so far only partially enforced, the awareness of collective demands has increased, noted Wang Kan (from the Chinese Institute of Industrial Relations) and Mary Callangher (Michigan University). Two kinds of movements are appearing together: those backed by the institutional trade unions and those born of spontaneous actions. “Workers’ demands have raised the crucial issue of transforming the ACFTU”, stressed Chang Kai, of Peking People’s University, a specialist in labour law and advisor of the strikers at Honda. Pointing out the emergence of a new class-consciousness, he insisted: “The trade unions must change in character and develop a real ability to represent the wage earners. This is a crucial point on which will depend the future of the social movement in China”, he continued, stressing the necessity for a new model of distribution benefitting workers.
The situation varies according to province and firm, as was shown by a number of enquiries carried out by research workers following the wave of social conflicts lasting several weeks, which took place in the province of Guangsong in Japanese company factories. They effectively paralysed Honda’s production on all its assembly lines in China. A paper by Cao Xuching (Keele University) and Roger Seifert (Wolverhampton University) on the Honda strikes (between May and July 2010) brought out the workers’ mobilisation and the resolution of the struggles by collective bargaining – events still rare in contemporary China. Pun Ngai (Peking University and Hong Kong Polytechnic) who runs the Research Centre of Social Work, stressed the importance of the cooperation of students from technical and occupational high schools with the strikers. She reported several examples of success, like the SACOM (students and academics against the Misbehav-IOR Company).
Lu Hulin (Beijing University) drew a very dark picture of the reality of working relations in the building sector that represents 10% of the GDP and is a source of substantial accumulation of wealth. In 2009, in a list of 12 Chinese billionaires, eight owed their fortunes to building due to a particularly appalling exploitation of migrant labour. About 95 million people, the immense majority of whom come from rural areas, work in this sector, which in China is part of the “informal economy” where labour laws are often ignored. Arrears of wages are a chronic disease. The seriousness of this social situation comes largely from the fact that the building workers are recruited employers acting as intermediaries for the major building companies.
Huang Jisu, research worker at the Academy of Social Science, co-ordinator of the review La Pensée Critique Internationale (International Critical Thought) and co-author of a book entitled La chine est malheureuse (China is Unhappy), pointed out that the working class has, so far, never been at the centre of policy in China and questions the definition of the working class in China today. Is it composed of those modern and urban industrial workers, as Marx had seen them? The answer is “yes” and “no” – which, in his view, necessitates a more flexible and open redefinition so as to reflect the realities of contemporary China, where a large part of the industrial manpower consists of “peasant-workers”, the mingongs. It is hard to say that China is not winning in the present world capitalist system. However, the model being followed is reaching exhaustion because the social and human cost is too high: the disparity in incomes is shocking, society is fragmented and throughout the country there are latent explosions. It is time, he stressed, to imagine another future.
According to Tim Pringle (Warwick University) many commentators have adopted the habit of describing the Chinese working class as victims of the reform rather than as agents for change. The situation is not static – he recalls that the establishment of the law on employment contracts in January 2008 had given rise to a vast public consultation during the preparation of the document, which had enabled employers and workers, foreign Chambers of Commerce, as well as tens of thousands of NGO activists and ordinary citizens, to express their views on the subject.
This consultation has enabled the Chinese workers – especially the most skilled and experienced in the private sector – to acquire a critical mass of knowledge about the world industrial system and their legal rights. Nevertheless, there remain important constraints on the development of a labour movement in China – particularly the legal banning of freedom of association.
Carlos Polenus (CSI, Brussels) called for a widening of the field of cooperation in the context of globalisation and of the capitalist crisis while working class awareness is intensifying, which requires a response from the Chinese trade unions. To the question of whether Solidarnosc could serve as a model for China, the answer is negative considering the present day working conditions in China and Poland.
Wolfgang Greif, International Secretary of GPA-DPA, Austria, (union of private sector clerical workers, graphic workers and journalists) urged China to ratify all the fundamental standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), particularly the conventions on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Nevertheless, the request for international cooperation by the Chinese unions is important.
“The objective of the conference is also to provide elements of understanding and to set up a Sino-European network on labour issues”, recalled Josef Baum, of Transform Austria, questioning the forms of cooperation to be envisaged between the working class movements. This gave rise to several contributions from trade unionists and NGO activists on the perspectives of international exchange at the level of both trade unions and NGOs.
The international forum that took place in Beijing last November on “climate changes and comparison between the socio-ecological movements in China and Europe”, on the initiative of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Law Faculty of the People’s University of Beijing, had put forward the challenges that Beijing would have to meet regarding the environment. This conference was a first ever, pointed out Lutz Pohle, in charge of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s office in Beijing, to the extent that it brought together research workers and committed Europeans active in social and ecological movements and, on the Chinese side, academics, members of parliament, senor officials and NGO representatives. The diversity of the Chinese participation showed the different forms of commitment and the dynamics of mobilisation evidenced by these many actors. This clarifies, in an original manner, the way that ecological problems are tackled in China following on thirty years of economic expansion. The challenges to be taken up are immense: the most populated country on the planet is, today, one of its principal polluters. “We are producing cheaply, the world is profiting from this but we are paying the price”, stressed Yu Jie, leader of the NGO The Nature Conservancy. This critical situation has led the authorities to review its growth model, going from the quantitative to the qualitative. Zhou Ke, Dean of the Law Department of the People’s University, notes that development has been mortgaged by degrading the environment, whose cost is estimated at 3% of GDP. Moreover the environmental problems still raise difficult political and societal issues – perhaps more so in China than elsewhere: there are constant demonstrations by the population linked to environmental scandals
Zhai Yong, a member of the People’s National Assembly, described how China had had to build up a legal framework, previously totally absent, relating the environment to the pace of industrial growth over these three decades. As far back as 1979, the government had passed a law on protecting the environment, a concept that was embodied in the Constitution in 1989. Since then, the central government has been publishing innumerable documents on air and water pollution and solid waste, studies on impacts on the environment, clean production, energy savings and renewable energy. However, as with a great deal of Chinese legislation, there is the greatest difficulty in carrying out this astonishingly exhaustive and modern system. The local authorities are more interested in economic growth in the area of their jurisdiction than in protecting the environment.
Nevertheless, the aim of sustainable economic development instead of just seeking development as rapidly as possible is on the agenda. According to Huan Qinzhi, lecturer in the Department of Marxist Studies of Beijing University (Beida) a “green economy” is not incompatible with a “red economy”. The social environmental movements (green associations) are combining with those of the traditional workers’ movements (red associations). Social justice and ecological sustainability go hand in hand, provided that the fundamental aim of economic growth is properly defined: that is, of meeting the fundamental needs of people and not of subjecting it to capital’s law of maximum profit. “In an economy of growth, like China’s”, he explained, “growth is simply a necessary and temporary condition of a stage in the long-term development that will lead to the satisfaction of its citizens. The real ecological danger comes from China’s dependence on solely economic criteria”.
Maxim Combes, an economist from ATTAC-France recalls that the failure of the Copenhagen Conference gave rise to new citizens’ initiatives dictated by the urgency of both climate and social justice. “The climate crisis shows up the social dimensions of inequality both to those who produce it and those who suffer the consequences”. He described the work of these movements in support of a transition in power sources, which require really effective international regulations and national public policies that, far from those limited to some ad hoc and partial adjustment, would create real breaks capable of meeting both the climate /environmental and the social issues.
Professor Joseph Baum (Transform-Austria), however, regretted the fact that the economic and social crisis in Europe had, for politicians and public opinion, relegated the climate crisis to the background as if the two were unrelated. He felt that, for the Chinese, the present crisis was an opportunity and a challenge that should be used to make the necessary fundamental changes so as to establish healthy and sustainable economic structures and to economise in the use of fossil fuels.
Eva Steinfeld raised the issue of the energy transition in China. She stressed, however, that it would be difficultto address in view of the country’s dependence on coal (70% of its primary fuel consumption) although the 12th Five Year Plan that covers the period 2011-2015 has assigned an important place to the struggle against pollution and for developing a green economy.
In particular, it sets the objective of increasing the proportion of renewable energy from 8% to 11.4% of the primary fuel consumption, plans a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of between 8 and 10% and an increase of forest cover. In 2010, 177 billion euros were invested in clean energy, which is 30% more than the year before, according to the UNDP.
Several speakers highlighted the popular awareness of environmental problems in the 1990s, a period marked by runaway industrialisation. This awareness is continued today in the work of over 3,200 NGOs. However, Yu Jie regrets, “transparency and access to information is limited”.
Wang Quandian, of the Canton Agricultural University, highlighted the fundamental priorities for changing the model of economic growth that must go hand in hand with the development of the participation of the social forces: “In other words”, he said, “we must promote democracy and broaden public participation in accordance with the primacy of the law. This is the fundamental way for achieving the socialisation of environmental management”.
He described how, over the last few years, the population has taken part in mobilisations to protest against irresponsible industrialists or to demand the closing of dangerous sites. Each time the internet acted as a medium for spreading the protests. He gave the example of the town of Xiamen, in Fujian Province. Rallying to an SMS message sent out by mobile telephones, thousands of citizens, mainly of middle-class origin, came out onto the city’s streets in late spring 2007 to attack the project of building an enormous chemical plant to produce paraxylene, an aromatic hydrocarbon used in the production of polyesters.
While the heterogeneous assembly of actors were organising in China around a common social and environmental discourse, recalled Lutz Pohle, it should be born in mind that these commitments are expressed in contexts and stages of development quite different from those in the major capitalist countries. However, over and above these differences, a certain number of convergences have been identified.